When I was a kid, I used to collect Panini stickers. You buy an album, and get card packs with random stickers to fill up the empty squares. You never know what stickers you’re going to get. But for the joy of opening a pack, the excitement of getting new ones and trading the doubles, you gladly paid a price. When you think about it, it was scale model capitalism: provide people with commodities, let them compete and trade and create a market with overproduction and artificial scarcity. Of course you could simply write to Panini with the contact details in the back of the album, write down the numbers of your missing stickers and receive all of them instantly for a set fee. It’s probably their way of circumventing gambling laws; because they simply gave people the option to straight up buy every sticker on demand. But we didn’t: we paid to be part of this game of collecting and trading. Because apart from swapping doubles, the most rare and popular stickers were worth actual money.
Fast forward to 2017 and a riot around the new videogame Star Wars Battlefront II is heating up so severely that even the mainstream press is reporting on it. Gambling watch-groups are investigating it, the press and consumer organisations are foaming at the mouth. What is going on? Electronic Arts took a next step in the ongoing trend of “micro-transactions” – a cunning little revenue model. Players buy the game for 60,- euros, but then have the option to pay extra money to obtain in-game items. This is not new. Mobile and browser games are already doing it for years. You can play the game and unlock things by doing it well enough, but if you can’t wait that long or want to have an edge over your opponents, you buy it for real money.
It’s a controversial business practise that is aimed at people that are vulnerable for addiction. From all the people that play games with micro-transactions, about 2 to 5% actually spend money. And that’s exactly what the makers are aiming for. They know most people don’t bother, or prefer to boost their game performance by simply playing it. It’s the small group that secures them their income with in-game purchases in titles that are typically free to play.
Electronic Arts (and other companies too) has been using this system also in big budget titles, and has been moving the goalposts with this for years. It seems Battlefront II was just the last push that set off a chain reaction. Unlocking every update and character in the Star Wars game would costs you either 2100,- dollar or 4500 hours of gaming. For a game you already paid 60,- for to begin with. And these are not cosmetic upgrades but solid gameplay-influencing features, in a multiplayer game: other players will beat you on the battlefield because they paid more money than you. Not only that, but since the so-called “loot boxes” in Battlefront II are exactly like the Panini sticker packs, there’s a random element to it as well.
This led to a discussion about alleged gambling components of the game. It went as far as official authorities on the subject putting the game under investigation. In certain countries, like the Netherlands for example, online gambling is illegal or highly restricted. It could possibly endanger the sales of Battlefront II and perhaps Call of Duty WW2 and these regions. Because just like rare stickers in Panini collections, the digital currency (Crystals in Star Wars, FIFA Coins in EA’s famed football franchise) become commodities that are traded and sold between consumers.
Now, there has been an interesting development as of yesterday, when Electronic Arts decided to temporarily remove the micro-transaction mechanic from the game. This was done in response to the huge outcry and negative feedback it caused. This is an interesting development and it reminded me of the launch of the Xbox One. When Microsoft introduced their new console, it had planned a system where the Xbox had to be always online. That way it would no longer be needed to have a physical disc in the drive. This would effectively end the option to borrow, resell or rent games. Not dramatically different from digital purchase, this system nevertheless caused a huge controversy. It started with videogame fans, keeled over into videogame press, the regular media and into consumer organisations and watchdogs. It didn’t take long for Microsoft to cave in and cancel their plans.
Don’t Vote With Your Wallet
Now, the interesting thing here is that the whole thing happened months before the actual launch of the Xbox One. Nobody had bought a single unit yet and Microsoft already decided to make a U-turn on their “always online” policy. The same happened with Star Wars Battlefront II: the game is due out today (November 17th) but EA already stalled their micro-transaction model and is currently revising it. I’m raising this issue because there is a dominant misconception in the consumer world, and especially in the market of videogames. And that’s the issue of boycotting, or “voting with your wallet” as it is often referred to. Support creators buy buying their product and reward them; boycott products you don’t like to make a statement against their business practise. The first part of that concept is definitely true. If you want to reward people for something they worked hard on: buy their product. But refusing to buy something as a means of protest is something else. Especially in the domain of micro-transactions this is virtually useless and perhaps even counterproductive.
I wrote about this before in this article. But to summarise: capitalism is (contrary to popular belief) not based on supply and demand. The economic system behind capitalism can only work if its engines are constantly working; in simpler terms, there has to be constant production and constant purchase make it work. This leads to overproduction and artificially created demand. This also means that if demand decreases, it doesn’t decrease supply. Business models are based on constant production and if the demand for a product decreases, it means that through other means the same level of supply somehow has to be sold. In most cases this means either selling more units to the smaller group of buyers for example by increasing portions or re-purposing the product and selling it to a different target group. The other way is to reduce costs in making the product.
In case of micro-transactions in videogames, this comes down to finding new ways of selling more in-game items in a broader variety of ways. If you are mad at EA it doesn’t help to not buy Battlefront II or buying it and not purchasing Crystals. Boycott can only work if it’s carried on such massive scale that the revenue of the targeted company is virtually annihilated. Although nothing is impossible, it’s a hugely inefficient way of forcing change. The way to make changes is protest. And we have seen that it works. We had the Xbox 180 (pun intended) and now the Battlefront uproar, and in both cases we saw that without any visible decline in sales or profit, companies will have to budge under pressure. Why?
It’s very simple, and it comes back to get bigger picture of the essentials of capitalism. A lot of us have distorted view of the opposing sides in this conflict. We see ourselves (the consumer) as victims, the publisher as the evil mastermind, the developers as their minions and the press as independent party taking either side. But we have to re-frame this image in our head. The developers, us and the press, we’re the same. We are the ones playing games, paying money and doing our job. We have to unite together and turn against the publishers (specifically the business owners and top tier managers). We need development studios and publisher companies that are collectively owned and democratically controlled by the people that do the work, we need to help and work together with people that make our games and utilise the exposure and power that journalists have to spread this idea.
The leadership of EA wants us not to realise this. They are perfectly happy with game fans getting angry at PR people and press figures. A lot of journalists still try to find the reasonable middle and many developers understandably keep their mouth shut or feel disconnected from fan groups by the negative feedback that’s directed at them. We need to realise that we are into this together and that we have the power to change it. With the history of the Xbox and the current problems with loot boxes as example. It’s a testimony to the power of a mass movement. Instead of the passive, personal action of boycott, a mass protest offers a chain reaction. Negative gaming press, negative reactions on social media and such, negative publicity in mainstream press and eventually also among the employees, partners, financiers and shareholders. This is a spiral of actions that eventually is so incredibly strong that it can grind an entire business to a halt.
Are you angry at a game? Don’t vote with your wallet! Be angry, write about it, share about it, talk to other people and support other workers that are victim of exploitation!